HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - Newly released police reports further detail the scuffle between Edison resident Daniel Nagahama, age 28, and Highland Park police.
The June 2016 incident left Nagahama dead several hours later, after he was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.
Four police reports were filed following the incident, each by a Highland Park police officer: Sergeant Jason C. Culver and Patrol Officers Brian O’Mara, Kevin M. Garrity and Christopher A. Decosta.
The reports all follow a similar sequence of events, save for two of the reports. O’Mara, in his report, wrote that he recognized Nagama once he arrived.
Decosta, in his report, wrote that Nagahama claimed he was in the car with his mother, when the two got into an argument and she pushed him out of the vehicle.
The two 9-1-1 calls were received by Highland Park police at 5:15 p.m., according to the reports. Officers responded and found Nagahama laying in the middle of the road at the intersection between Benner Street and South Fifth Avenue.
They suspected Nagahama had been the victim of a hit and run, and in one of the newly released police dashcam videos, officers can be heard saying on police radio that Nagahama might have been struck with a car.
While officers attempted to speak with Nagahama and figure out what happened to him, he became belligerent and uncooperative with officers, refusing to answer any questions.
Nagahama appeared “visibly intoxicated,” according to the report by O’Mara, and indeed, his toxicology report indicated his alcohol levels were three times the legal driving limit.
Two officers, Decosta and Garrity, advised Nagahama to sit on the curb, since they were worried about his potential injuries, but Nagahama refused and became agitated, according to Garrity’s report.
Instead, Nagahama stood in the middle of the roadway, verbally berated officers and interrupted police as they tried to interview other witnesses, according to Decosta’s report.
The officers attempted to take control of Nagahama while Culver attempted to cuff him, but a struggle ensued, according to Culver’s reported.
The newly published reports all indicate that O’Mara used pepper spray to subdue Nagahama.
Dashcam footage shows one of the officers taking out pepper spray and holding it to Nagahama’s face as he’s pinned against the police car, but none of the spray was depicted being discharged.
Footage depicts Nagahama being strapped into the stretcher and loaded onto the ambulance. Decosta and Garrity rode along with Nagahama in the ambulance, according to Culver’s report.
The ambulance left the scene with Nagahama at 5:29 p.m. en route for RWJ, according to the report, and arrived at 5:33 p.m.
Nagahama died roughly three hours later. A spokesperson for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office said that he died from “natural causes,” that is, “morbid obesity with cardiomegaly and left ventricle hypertrophy.”
His autopsy report by the Middlesex County Medical Examiner’s Office indicated that Nagahama was morbidly obese, with an enlarged liver and a medical history of diabetes mellitus.
Nagahama’s blood work indicated a high concentration of alcohol, as well as the presence of paroxetine, a drug used to treat anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Statements from the prosecutor’s office, which initially indicated Nagahama was not arrested, have come under scrutiny by activists and local residents.
In August 2016, the Libertarians for Open Government, led by activist John Paff, sued the county prosecutor to release the use-of-force reports. A judge ruled in Paff’s favor, but the release was stayed until the records were made public in June 2017.
“All four reported that Nagahama was arrested (contrary to the press release), that he was “under the influence” and “resisted police officer control,” Paff wrote.
In December 2017, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office indicated that Nagahama hadn’t been arrested but rather, he was placed in handcuffs for the protection of himself and others nearby.
He was transported to the hospital in handcuffs and continued to be combative to police and hospital staff, according to Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey, but the officers left once he calmed down.
The use of force reports indicating an arrest was made were prepared in anticipation of a petty disorderly persons offense, Carey said.
Still, several residents have remained unconvinced; suspicious that there might be a missing piece in between Nagahama’s scuffle with police and his death several hours later, and that authorities weren't being honest with what transpired.
On the evening of Friday, December 22, several of them gathered on Raritan Avenue to protest and hold signs, demanding an independent investigation into Nagahama’s death.
“I was quite struck by the original story from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, that he was being revived when he became belligerent, and as a result there was an altercation. But that wasn't actually true, you could see the video, that was not the case at all,” said Highland Park resident Ellen Whitt.